The End of the World / The Beginning of Questions

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Church of San Francisco, Quito, Ecuador

In 1970, Hal Lindsey published his book, The Late Great Planet Earth that would go on to sell millions of copies. The book shook the foundations of charismatic Evangelical churches including the Assemblies of God, the church I was raised in. Lindsey explained why the prophesies in the Bible were about to take place; the end of the world was at hand.

The Rapture is a charismatic belief in a phenomenon when Christians suddenly disappear from the earth and are  “taken up” into heaven. Those left behind will be subjected to seven years of tribulation. The Antichrist arises during this time and takes over the world. Though Lindsey didn’t predict the exact date, he believed it would occur before 1988 because scripture (Matthew 24:34) says “this generation…” — a period of 40 years — “shall not pass till all these things be fulfilled.” The time clock started in 1948, with the establishment of the nation of Israel. (These interpretations require a patchwork of scripture. I’m simplifying, but this is the gist of it.)

These ideas were fully embraced by our church. Many people in the congregation believed it would happen much sooner and began making preparations. Some stockpiled canned goods (Christians would be unable to purchase food); some bought huge containers and filled them with extra supplies of gasoline; others opened safe deposit boxes and started accumulating cash (banks would refuse money to Christians.)

Why would church-goers prepare as though they wouldn’t be raptured?

It’s complicated. Here’s the short version: tribulationists believe as I described above; mid-tribulationists believe that Christians will have to endure 3 1/2 years of the tribulation before the Rapture. The small church my family attended * fell into this category. It’s also important to know that Lindsey’s book underscored a belief already common in the charismatic movement — the end of the world was near.

* Membership dwindled from 75 people to about a dozen, and then closed permanently in 2010.

I know this must seem absurd, but when you’re 11 and 12 years old — as I was — it has a profound impact on your sense of stability. The world as I knew it was teetering on the edge of collapse.

Of course, 1988 has come and gone. The return of Christ has been predicted thousands of times. Pope Sylvester II predicted it would happen January 1, 1000. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church, believed it would occur in 1836. How can people maintain their faith when predictions such as these don’t come to pass? The standard response is that scripture says “no man knows the day nor the hour” of Christ’s return. But, still. It’s an excellent question.

I’ve already written about my interest in seeing churches on my travels. I visited many of them while in Ecuador, a primarily Catholic country. The Church of San Francisco was built during a 50 year period that started in 1534. It’s a gorgeous church that’s part of San Francisco Plaza. After looking at the interior, I walked further toward the back and explored some of the other rooms alone.

The stairway was made of stone and I followed it upstairs. I pushed open a huge wooden door and discovered the upper choir room:

IMG_4102It was breathtaking. It gave me an incredible view of the church below:

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I think this interior is simply amazing. Photographs rarely do justice when size and grandeur are part of the experience

The various saints and martyrs are depicted on the walls behind the carved wooden chairs the choir members sit in during mass.

IMG_4105I don’t believe in church teachings anymore, of course. But that doesn’t mean I’ve lost my sense of wonder about places of worship. I still have a visceral experience when I see Jesus depicted in his suffering on the cross. I will never lose that; it was such a powerful part of my formative years.

IMG_4099The crucifixes in the South American churches were some of the most violent I’ve ever seen.  In the midst of the gold-leaf and grand architecture, it’s startling to see Jesus’ head and body depicted with so many open wounds, huge bruises and dripping blood. The most intense were in churches where services were going on, and I didn’t feel comfortable taking photographs. I wish I had. Some of the crucifixes had wigs on them, which caused them to look like effigies from horror movies.

People often judge those who hold unusual — or even bizarre — belief systems, and wonder why they don’t recognize how absurd they are. But this overlooks the social and parental cocoon: it makes a difference when your family members believe it, plus the people you encounter daily. It’s made all the more intense because we were taught to pity those who didn’t believe yet. It becomes a self-reinforcing system of expectations and rationalizations as to how the world truly operates. According to the Pew Research Center, 41% of Americans believe the rapture “will probably happen.” The number drops to 19% for Christians with a college degree.

What effect did it have on me to grow up in an apocalyptic religious household? I’ve spent many hours trying to figure that out.

Do I wish I had had a different — or no — religious upbringing?  Yes, often. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve learned I must embrace everything that’s happened to me. After all, the coping mechanisms we develop in childhood have value. My interests in reading, self-education and exploring ideas can be traced to the profound questions my upbringing created. Am I making lemonade out of lemons? Sure. But don’t we all have to do that about our childhoods, including people raised in conventional homes? (Does anyone know what a “conventional upbringing” would even look like?)

Having a history of religion is hardly necessary to become someone who questions the things around them. It happens to anyone who experiences disconnection between what they’re told and what they think.

I’m still learning how to make peace with my history, and maybe — on some level — with the parts of me that question everything. It’s how I engage with life; it has become the only way I know how to be in the world.

3 thoughts on “The End of the World / The Beginning of Questions

  1. Bart you said a mouthful in this post. There are lots of religions in the world that have programmed their followers … Christianity is not exclusive in apocalyptic visions either. Islam and Judaism also have their “end times” being literally played out for us all to watch on TV. As a fellow person who loves to ponder the universe and the reason for existence …. I can only hope that you retain your awe of creation (which I think you have) and love of the creator behind it all. Spirituality is a blessed thing.

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    1. Thanks, Judy. It turned out to be one of those posts I had to edit many times. I still have — and will always have — a sense of awe about what comes across my path. You’re right — other religions have End Times ideas though Judaism is probably the least focused on it. The Torah never describes anything post-death. But I get what you’re saying — Christianity hardly has a lock on apocalyptic visions. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. I love hearing your point of view.
      Big hugs,
      Bart

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